Be warned: this 1923 acoustic recording of the composer conducting his masterpiece "The Planets" (1914-1916) has poor sound and rather amateurish orchestral playing. But if you love this work, you owe it to yourself to hear this utterly extraordinary performance. I feel it takes us deeper into the strange world of Holst's imagination than any other recorded version, including the composer's later (1926) electrical recording. The latter performance - a lacklustre reading in only slightly better sound - was formerly available on an EMI CD in that label's "Composers In Person" series. I have kept my copy of the EMI only because of the coupling: Elgar's 1926 performance of the Enigma Variations (fascinating!). Holst's 2nd Planets also appeared on a deleted Koch CD in slightly better sound, coupled with Vaughan Williams conducting his own 4th Symphony (for me, the work's greatest-ever reading). I disposed of the Koch when the Vaughan Williams appeared in a better re-mastering on a Dutton CD (coupled with Barbirolli's 1st recording of Elgar's 5th).
What makes Holst's acoustic version so special? Sheer energy, for one thing. Holst's players may not hit all the notes correctly, but they play like inspired madmen. Mars is fast and incredibly menacing: in both his versions, Holst clocks in at the same 6:18 (Steinberg's brilliant reading on DG, often criticised for being too fast, comes in at 6:43). Just listen to the huge swells in the orchestra starting at 3:00 - it's like being in the middle of "The Perfect Storm." The violins play with absolutely no vibrato, creating an atmosphere that's aptly out of this world. The portamento-laden Venus is unlike any other performance, with very piquantly played winds. Mercury is rendered with a Mendelssohnian lightness that is un-matched by anyone since. And so on throughout: each episode is rendered with sharply rhythmic inflection and highly characterized melodies (even Boult sounds slightly unidiomatic after hearing Holst's way with Jupiter).
All the other items on this disc demonstrate the same attention to accentuated rhythms and distinctive characterization. Frankly, the St. Paul's Suite (with its echoes of Bartok!) and Beni Mora here are quite simply the most hypnotic accounts in my experience.
My favorite account of "The Planets" in stereo is Steinberg's with the Boston Symphony (DG). I'm also fond of the Stokowski "live" account with the NBC Symphony (Cala). The original two-piano version is a fascinating supplement. It can be heard in an excellent performance by Richard Rodney Bennett and Susan Bradshaw (Delos CD).
"The Planets" was an incredibly influential score. You can't listen to Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," Herrmann's film score for "Day The Earth Stood Still," Goldsmith's music for "Alien," or any of the John Williams "Star Wars" movies without hearing echoes of Holst. But even if you think you already know "The Planets," you may find that this ancient recording is like meeting Holst's masterpiece for the first time.
Very highly recommended.